Matt Cooper looks ahead to the final round of The American Express and he's keen to look for a spot of value in the market without one of the leaders.
1pt e.w. Sam Burns at 12/1 without Jon Rahm (bet365 1/5 1,2,3)
I make no apologies for more or less repeating the words Ben used to begin his pre-tournament preview of this week's The American Express: what a difference a year makes.
This time last year Jon Rahm was stomping around Palm Springs like a Basque bear with a pill-resistant migraine. He’d spent his previous event (the Tournament of Champions) thrashing a ridiculous tally of par breakers yet it was not enough to better the winner Cam Smith and he couldn’t find the hole in this event. He was furious with what he perceived to be a flat stick test, probably more furious that his own flat stick was malfunctioning, and it remained that way, with the odd exception, until late August.
When the putter finally started to work again the victories followed, two of them on the DP World Tour at the back end of 2022, and then one more in his last start when gaining redemption of sorts in the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua earlier this month.
Arriving back at PGA West in Palm Springs full of pep the Spaniard has been superb through 54 holes, both his potty mouth and the scoring cleaned up in rounds of 64-64-65. That’s good to tie the 54-hole lead alongside rookie Davis Thompson (62-64-67) on 23-under 193, a total that leaves them four shots clear of JT Poston and Christiaan Bezuidenhout and five ahead of Tom Kim, Harry Higgs, Sam Burns and Taylor Montgomery.
Rahm is looking to land a fourth win in his last five starts and has converted eight of his 13 career leads or co-leads with 18 holes to play (and each of his last three). Stats are a bit thin on the ground at this three course event (only the Stadium Course which both he and Thompson played on Saturday and where the tournament concludes on Sunday) has Strokes Gained stats. In old money, Rahm missed just one green on Saturday and gave himself a lot of opportunities. He made six birdies and an eagle, he also took aim at, and missed, another six par breakers from inside 14 feet.
“Nothing but positive, that’s all I can say,” he gushed after his round. “Ball striking felt amazing. Hit a lot of great shots out there off the tee. Very confident going into tomorrow, knowing that I’m going to have to shoot another low score if I want to have a chance to win.”
He’s riding the wave and is widely expected to seal the deal at 4/7.
New kid Thompson is in unusual territory. The only other time the 23-year-old from Alabama has found himself in the top five of a PGA Tour event with 18 holes to play was when fifth and three back in last year’s Fortinet Championship. He carded a 72 to finish ninth, six back of the winner.
If that suggests frailty don’t be too swift to pass judgement. In the amateur game he hit top spot in the world rankings, played the 2021 Walker Cup and responded to losing a play-off in the 2019 Jones Cup by winning it a year later. That resilience and capacity to learn quickly was also in evidence last year on the Korn Ferry Tour when he converted a two-shot 54-hole lead in the Rex Hospital Open, a week after he shared the lead but fell back to fifth.
After his third round yesterday he said all the right things: “I feel like I don’t have anything to lose in my rookie year, just kind of freewheel it. I’ve been in this position before, but now it’s on one of the biggest stages. Exciting to test my nerves and test my ability. I’m looking forward to it.” He added that he was proud of staying patient and not forcing the issue on Saturday – can he produce another mature display on Sunday? I think he can but believe it’s a less likely proposition than the 7/2 he’s generally priced at.
(Ben, by the way, might be gnashing his teeth after having the name Davis and good drivers in mind at the start of the week. He thought of Davis Riley and Cam Davis, while Thompson ranks 19th for SG Off the Tee and 21st for Total Driving this season.)
As Dave Tindall and myself have noted in the first two final round previews this year, front-runners have prevailed in recent times on the PGA Tour. The last 23 winners of 2022 had been tied third or better at this stage and the first two victors of this calendar year – Rahm and Si Woo Kim – were tied fifth.
It’s a trend that is more or less replicated in the tournament with 19 of the last 20 editions going to golfers tied fifth or better with 18 holes to play (for a long while the event was a 90 hole marathon – since it became a four round event 11 of 12 were both tied fifth or better and no more than three blows off the lead).
The exception to these numbers was when Scott Stallings stalled in 2013, carding a 70 when five clear to miss out on the play-off by one shot (Brian Gay took advantage).
It indicates that the chasers might catch one of the leaders but passing two could be a challenge. Nonetheless, Rahm was already prepared not to be the leader when he tees off, expecting someone to have gone low early. Tom Kim is fearless enough and Poston playing with a lot of confidence.
But SAM BURNS might be the man to take aim at the leaders. Back in 2020 he thrashed a final round 63 here to finish sixth and he opened his account for this week with a 64 on the Stadium Course (moreover he thrashed the front nine in just 29 blows). “I like the golf course a lot,” he said after Thursday’s lap. “If you drive it well you can get some wedges in your hand and be able to attack. And then the greens are really nice.”
A few books have opened markets without Rahm and that’s where I’m most comfortable backing this winner of four events in the last 20 months (who is widely available at 40/1 to win the tournament). Bet365’s 12/1 with three places is the pick.
Posted at 0900 GMT on 22/01/23
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